Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, by Irina Trocan
In the last 20 years of Romanian Cinema, although there have been frequent couples being shown on screen, there have been seldom any intimate scenes that really evoke the complex relationship between the two people, the power dynamic between them, the shadow of the things left unsaid. Even more rare are such scenes containing characters that belong to different social classes; and different ethnic groups; and gay characters.
Soldiers. A Story From Ferentari by Ivana Mladenovic, co-written with Adrian Schiop – the author of the book that provides the story for this film – delicately treats just such a case of intersectionality: in an atmosphere of typical Ferentari virility, Adi, a 40 year old man working on his doctor’s degree, with a thesis on Manele, begins a relationship with 35 year old Alberto, a Roma man who has spent half his life behind bars. In other words, the two risk the chance of attracting all the homophobic and ethnic prejudice, as well as class hatred, the hatred directed towards intellectuals and everything else that dwells in the heavy air of Ferentari.
The film is constructed on the basis of the slowly, but surely, escalating tension between Adi and Alberto, after it becomes clear to both of them that they are becoming a couple. It bargains on an atmosphere of authenticity; of life caught in its natural development. Mladenovic and DP Luchian Ciobanu opt for wide shots and a slow rhythm, as well as for the usage of locations that really bring out the vibrant precarity of the neighborhood. If the stylistic option is already somewhat of a default within the New Romanian Cinema, the change of environment – after much too many Romanian drama films centered around middle-class hetero-normative couples, this film brings us into the world of Manele themed nightclubs, dingy bars and austere apartments – makes this a truly unique picture. Indeed, amidst the many films within whose narratives the couples fall apart due to emotional or psychological causes, „Soldiers” brings forth a rare social perspective; something that can be found in „Ana, Mon Amour” before the film trails off in narrative confusion and psychotherapy, but not many in other films.
In being transformed from literature to film, „Soldiers” loses a few things and gains some in exchange. The film abandons Schiop’s 1st person narration – who, after creating a semi-autobiographic character, was chosen to depict his on-screen persona as well – and with it, the volatile way in which Alberto is shaped – about whom Adi speculates at first that he isn’t attracted to men, in spite of his physical experiences within prison; then he states that through the continuation of the relationship he is taking advantage of Alberto, or that the former has somehow gotten used to the abuse insofar that he would accept the possibility of a romantic relationship between them; and is then scared again by sheer risk of what keeping it would mean. Schiop’s narrator is lucid enough to guess his own moral transgressions – for instance his fetish for lower-class bodies, which doesn’t fit his middle-class precaution for a prosperous couple lifestyle. What he is willing to give cannot be ballanced with what he wishes to receive; and nor can the abrupt changes of register – from obsessive thinking to an anthropologist like distance in observing Alberto, who’s inadaptation he explains as a natural consequence of his time spent in prison, while Romania was moving ahead and becoming more and more westernised. What the film gains, however, is an equal distance from the two protagonists – Schiop is as vulnerable in front of the camera as his partner-lover-guinea pig, played by Pavel Digudai, is. Pavel’s presence – who goes from goofing around to real warmth to fear of being discovered as a gay man – mkaes Alberto easier to understand, as he is more human, and a more probable target for the audience’s empathy, as the writer is. In fact, „Soldatii” is one of the many novels-turned-movie in which the narrator become character loses his grandiose stature, and with it the audience’s indulgence.
When Roma representation in Romanian Cinema will be written about in a more orderly fashion, we will be able to observe that „Soldiers” is way ahead of the competition. „Aferim!” (directed by Radu Jude, 2015) fixes – in the style of „12 Years a Slave” – a fundamental mistake that Romanian historiography made, omitting the suffering that the Roma people were subjected to for hundreds of years. Adrian Silisteanu’s short „Written/Unritten” (2016) uses a birocratic deadlock to show two parallel family reglementation systems, and thus showing how Romanian laws create unnecessary complications for Roma families. There are other films, although not many – „Toto and his Sisters” (d. by Alexander Nanau, 2014), the short film „Music in the Blood” (d. by Alexandru Mavrodineanu, 2014), featuring Dan Bursuc – that look upon the Romanis with empathy, but in all these cases the view is set at a comfortable distance and is, to some degree, paternal.
Adi and Alberto get close to one another looking for reciprocated support, because they cannot seem to find a place where they belong; except, for Adi, this inadequacy is a discomfort, while for Alberto it is desperation.
Soldiers. Story from Ferentari
Adrian Şchiop, Vasile Pavel